Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The Wonderful World of Denial

Today we’re going to visit the Wonderful World of Denial. It has become clear to me that a discussion about this particular psychological mechanism would be a crucial stepping stone to understanding some of the obvious insanity prevalent in the REAL world today.

Denial can be thought of as a complex process where there may be some conscious knowledge or awareness of events in the world, but somehow one fails to feel their emotional impact or see their logical consequences. Denial is an attempt to reject unacceptable feelings, needs, thoughts, wishes, or even a painful external reality that alters the perception of ourselves. We use this psychological defense to protect ourselves from:
-Knowledge (things we don’t want to know)
-Insight or awareness that threatens our self-esteem; or our mental or physical health; or our security (things we don't want to think about)
-Unacceptable feelings (things we don’t want to feel)

Think of it this way. Every one of us has at one point or another in our lives had to face an unpleasant reality or painful truth and at the very least probably desperately wished it would go away. The first words out of the mouth of someone notified of the sudden death of a friend or loved one is usually a painful exclamation of, “NO!” And this initial and almost universal angry refusal to accept the pain we would feel if the death were real is perfectly natural. This negative reaction gives us some time to readjust our thinking and our feelings and prepare mentally and physically for the horrible reality of death. If you were still saying, “No, it can’t be true!” days and weeks after the death, then you probably are in denial.

One situation where the concept of Denial is used quite frequently, is in the Chemical Dependency field (drug and alcohol abuse). Anyone who has dealt with an addict has probably heard one of the following phrases or something like it:
“I could quit anytime I wanted.”
“I’d quit if people would leave me alone.”
“I can handle it on my own.”
“I’m under stress and it helps me to relax”

I could go on, but you have all head the excuses that alcoholics and drug addicts make to pretend to themselves that they don’t have a problem. When confronted, they become angry and usually contend that it is their confronter who has the REAL problem, not them. Adolescents are particularly good at this latter strategy.

Denial is also regularly used by people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes (“I can eat anything I want”); heart problems (“I’m not really having chest pain”); cancer (“It’s just a small cough”) and AIDS (“I’m not Gay so I couldn’t get it”). All of this just goes to show that it is very difficult to confront one’s mortality; or to give up one’s fantasies of control or invincibility. Yet, facing reality—even painful reality-- is also one of the many important challenges of life that each of us needs to accomplish every day.

I watched my mother, who was an alcoholic, pretend until the day she died that she didn’t drink very much. When confronted with hidden bottles of liquor in her home and a worsening medical condition with terminal consequences, she would become enraged and turn on those who loved her and wanted her to get help. But she would never admit that she needed it.

Denial need not be absolute and completely cut off from reality. Even among alcoholics and drug users there is a varying level of awareness of their problem. Some accept that they are in jail or sick because of their substance use, but yet are still not willing to do anything about it. Some may recognize some facts about their drinking (like that they get put in jail), but completely deny the impact of those facts on themselves or their families; or the future implications of continued drinking or drug use (e.g., that they are killing themselves and will die).

So, what does all this have to do with the current situation in the world? Well, I submit that denial can be a strategy not only of individuals, but of groups; organizations; and entire nations.

The Wonderful World of Denial allows someone to believe something is true, when it is obvious to everyone else it is false. Iit permits someone to pretend they are feeling "love" or other altruistic emotions when they are actually behaving in a hateful manner; it hides the truth by using big words and grand concepts to prevent yourself from feeling unacceptable feelings (some have called "intellectualizion"--which is a defense mechanism related to denial--"denial gone to college"). I would be engaging in "intellectualization" in this blog, if I tried to pretend that I was neutral and did not have feelings about the incidents I see every day in the news. I try to be objective (but I don't have any particular obligation to be objective, since I am not claiming to be either a journalist or a saint); and I am committed to an objective Truth and Reality that exists beyond what I may want or feel it to be.

Denial can make otherwise intelligent individuals/groups/nations behave in a stupid or clueless manner, because they are too threatened by the Truth and are unable to process what is perfectly apparent to everyone. People who live in this Wonderful World go through their daily lives secure in the knowledge that their self-image is protected against any information, feelings, or awareness that might make them have to change their view of the world. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING--not facts, not observable behavior; not the use of reason or logic; or their own senses will make an individual in denial reevaluate that world view. All events will simply be reinterpreted to fit into the mold of that world--no matter how ridiculous, how distorted, or how psychotic that reinterpretation appears to others. Consistency, common sense, reality, and objective truth are unimportant and are easily discarded--as long as the world view remains intact.

This is the Wonderful World that we are often amused to see young children playing in. It is amusing to us because we understand that they are just beginning to develop their intellectual and emotional faculties and denial and the subsequent use of fantasy is an important developmental phase, and is also rather cute when practiced by a toddler. There are many children's stories where this theme plays out--Where the Wild Things Are; The Secret Garden; The Neverending Story, etc. etc. Fantasy books help the child (and sometimes the adult!) to reconcile himself/herself to the harsher aspects of Reality. But a childlike response to Reality is not so cute or sweet when it is a behavioral strategy engaged in by a full grown man or woman, who , when they suffer a shock--such as the loss of a loved one; or the insight that their beloved belief system is responsible for death and destruction-- deny the facts and substitute an agreeable fantasy or delusion and then behave as if their fantasy/delusion were true. In extreme cases, this is called severe mental illness.

Here are some recent examples of denial: Dan Rather (here and here), CBS (here, here) , Daily Kos, France, Muslims (here , here) , Kerry.

Now, these examples do not preclude the fact that Christians or Republicans or other News Networks or Bush can also use denial--they certainly can. But let me clarify before the Bush haters use their latest meme: that Bush and his administration are "denying the reality" in Iraq.

"Optimism" is NOT denial. It certainly can become denial, if it prevents you from doing what needs to be done. But in fact, optimism is usually an important personality trait that tends to make people who possess it successful in the world of reality. People who have healthy optimism are those who face the Truth about a situation and make adjustments to make their vision of how things should be come into reality. Bush has faced the fact that if we do nothing, we allow ourselves to live with a false sense of security. I think that the situation now in Iraq is complex and violent, but if you access other avenues of information--including what people on the ground in Iraq and Iraqis themselves are saying, it is hard to understand why a policy of "doom and gloom" ought to replace optimism. There is certainly a rough road ahead in helping Iraq to become a stable and Democratic nation, but if the Iraqi people want that to happen, then it will happen if they take the steps to make it happen; and there is considerable evidence that we are isolating and cutting off that violence and limiting it to specific areas like Fallujah.

The intellectual "Vietnamizing" of every event in Iraq and failing to see the unique aspects and opportunities of this war and its real importance in the War on Terror and consequently for the long-term security of America denies the facts of the Islamofascist threat to civilization that has become apparent over the last 3 years. Putting Iraq in this context makes one understand the power of freedom and democracy to transform the world.

Failure to appreciate the liberation of millions of men, women and children, who for the first time in generations have the potential to live their lives in freedom is an incredible denial of what the Left has always claimed to stand for (is "liberation of the oppressed" one of their memes?). Well, Bush has faced reality, and is doing what needs to be done. Kerry is still in Vietnam and in denial about the reality of today. Remember the 1985 Terry Gilliam movie Brazil? Just think of the ending where Jonathan Pryce is being tortured by the evil thugs in an incredibly malignant world, while his mind escapes to his fantasy world where all is wonderful - that is what awaits us if we don't wake up and face what is going on in our world today.

It is our choice. So what will it be, the World of Reality-where we can work to make our vision of a free and democratic Middle East the cornerstone of a long-term policy to short-circuit Islamofascism and terror-- or The World of Denial?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This post was long, but worth reading. Thank you